This is the sermon the Rev. Canon Linda S. Taylor preached at St. Luke's in the Meadow on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 4, 2021.
Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple, writes about the Baemba tribe of South Africa. “When a person in that tribe acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he or she is placed in the center of the village, alone and unbound. All work comes to a stop, and every man, woman and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then, each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time. They speak about all the good things the person has done in his or her lifetime. All the person’s positive attributes and good deeds, all the strengths and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. The tribal ceremony often lasts several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe.”
When I read about this custom, I experienced a waterfall of thoughts and feelings. I was immediately moved by the deep respect for the individual this practice demonstrates, and I thought to myself that calling people into their best selves is surely the most productive way to respond to wrongdoing. Fast on the heels of that feeling and thought, I had a pang of regret and grief for the many times I’ve focused on the wrong that’s been done rather than look for a way to help someone—including me!—be the person God creates them to be. Then my thoughts wandered to the enormous difference between the Baembas’ approach to wrongdoing and our own laws and customs. That thought led me to imagine what kind of change it would take for such an approach to become part of the way we live. My mind played for a while with the system changes that would be necessary to implement such a positive process. Then I realized that the power of this process lies not in the way they confront the accused, but in all the days that come before that event—all those days when all the people in the village—men, women and children—are paying attention to the person’s behavior. Paying attention, being attentive, taking time to notice and appreciate goodness of action at that deep level that leads to long memory.
The seeds for the Baembas’ response to wrongdoing are planted long before the day when the accused stands inside the circle. The seeds are planted in every day of the person’s life, nurtured by the love each person holds for the other, and it’s at this moment when those seeds, planted by the whole village, bear fruit.
I can imagine that everyone who hears or reads about the Baembas’ response to wrongdoing by one of their neighbors might say, “Well, that sounds just fine, but it sure couldn’t happen here. That’s not the way it works—that’s not the way people are. It just wouldn’t work for us.”
I can imagine any one of us saying that—and I can imagine what people said when Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” I can imagine what they said, because they—we—are still saying it. We may not use the word enemies. Frequently, we prefer to think of those people as they or he or she. We don’t have to name the demon who makes our world a little—or a lot—less comfortable to live in. We know who we mean, and we don’t have to speak their names. We hear Jesus’ words, and there’s a part of us that acknowledges—perhaps a bit grudgingly—that God’s sun does light their days and that God’s rain does fall on them, but another part of us believes, deep, deep down where we keep those unspoken thoughts—those things that we don’t even say to ourselves—that God simply hasn’t yet figured out a way to prevent all those good things from happening to them. That same part of us thinks that if they ever had to stand in the center of the Baemba village circle, the talk wouldn’t last very long.
Loving our enemies—the practical application of the great commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves—is perhaps the most difficult part of living our faith. It’s not the way we work. It’s not the way people are. But there it is. We are bound by our baptismal covenant—those promises we make at least four times a year—to seek and serve Christ in all persons. All persons, not just the ones we like. To seek and serve Christ in them, not just to tolerate them. And you know—tolerance looks a lot like prejudice—like looking at someone we’ve never met and thinking we know all about who they are. We try to keep those promises. Some days—and some years—are better than others. On those other days, we just keep trying, because we are called to pay attention, to notice, to care for the tiny bit of God that each of us carries with us, that little bit of God that makes each of us holy.
Two hundred and forty-five years ago, fifty-six men signed the document that is the birth certificate for this nation—the Declaration of Independence. It was not simply the beginning of our country. It was also the beginning of a new way of life—a radical departure from the way life had always been, led by a group of revolutionaries and certainly doomed to failure. Everyone knew it wouldn’t work, that it couldn’t work, that it was against the laws of God and nature. People in other countries laughed at us. In the face of this impossibility, fifty-six men signed the document which includes the words that can be best understood as the creed of our country, the words that describe the dream—the belief—that guides us: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are impossible words to live into. The men who signed the declaration didn’t believe that all men were equal. They only thought that they were equal. Women and people of color were not even part of the equation, but for two hundred and forty-five years, we have worked to make these words ring true.
Every year brings us closer to making the dream a reality. The going is slow, and we sometimes despair that we will ever reach the day when justice walks every street and peace lives in every home. Sometimes we despair, but we continue to try, just as we try to live into our covenant, just as we try to be the people God calls us to be. We struggle to have courage—to make the right decisions—to do what we can for our country.
And dearly beloved, the good news—the very good news—is that God’s blessing is with us in our struggle.
And to that, we can say thanks be to God.